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Editor's Note: You'll Believe a Penguin Can Fly

Jan 20, 2006, 23:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

As a private pilot, I have a special place in my heart for things that fly. So it troubles me when I see airlines in the US floundering under bankruptcy, foreclosures, and all sorts of business problems.

My wife travels quite a bit for her job, so I was amazed to hear that on the flight she took home last week, the airline she used not only gave her minimal snacks, but they charged her $1 for the little bag of peanuts she was given.

Now, I realize that a dollar for a bag of peanuts is, well, peanuts. But it irks me a bit to see a business sticking such costs to the consumer when they have a perfectly good solution to reduce costs on a massive scale--far more than overcharging passengers for snacks.

The answer is simple: switch their IT infrastructure to Linux.

I don't know what this particular airline is using for their IT; they may be using Linux already. But somehow I doubt it. I do know that a majority of airlines are not using free or open source software on large scale deployments. They are sticking with their legacy UNIX and Windows systems for their operations. I know of one regional airline that was quite specific in their reasons what they weren't migrating to Linux: they told me, off the record, that switching to Linux was probably a good idea, but the extra costs of migration would be too much. When I responded that they'd been hearing too much FUD, they replied that it wasn't a matter of speculation for them--their budgets were so tight, any migration costs could tip the entire airline over.

It seems, then, a classic Catch-22: they can't spend money to save money, and they can't save money without spending some.

But something, somewhere, has to give. I am not the only one saying this, either. Unisys, in their capacity as IT consultant, just released a report this week indicating that in order to move towards profitability, airlines would have to implement self-service technology, RFID, and (you guessed it) open source technology. Unisys cited decreased operating costs and increased interoperability as the best reasons for using open source. I would concur, including reliability and stability to that list as well.

I realize that Unisys is not a favorite company amongst the community, and let's not kid ourselves: this report is a way to communicate to potential customers what Unisys can do for their airline. Still, this message is very likely the best message for the airlines to hear, no matter who the messenger happens to be.

Airlines, obviously, have other problems than what they spend on their computers. Rising fuel, legacy pensions, fluctuating passenger levels--these are all contributing to the problem. But there is no magic airline fairy who will enable all of these problems to disappear simultaneously. In reality, these problems must all be faced one at a time. Fixing IT costs won't save the airlines by itself. But it will but these companies on the right track.

Linux is clearly the best technology for the struggling airlines to use. This is an industry that has seen a lot of hard times, and may very well continue to navigate difficult straits. The employees and customers of an airline deserve to have the very best tools for the most reasonable price. Moving to open source will realize airlines real savings.

A savings far beyond mere peanuts.